Wood Turning

How To Burn Wood With Electricity – Lichtenberg Figures!

WARNING: High voltage electricity is dangerous. The device in this week’s video produces 12000 volts at 35 milliamps. Misuse can cause severe pain, trouble breathing, muscular contractions forcible enough to keep you from letting go of the probe, or death. In other words, this system is no joke, and you should not use it unless you are prepared to do so safely. Always make sure that you are insulated from the ground, and strongly consider the use of high-voltage protective gloves while using the device.
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You’ve seen Lichtenberg figures before, even if you didn’t know what they were called. These branching tree-like shapes are created by high voltage electricity. The most common form is lightning, which is a naturally occurring 3D Lichtenberg figure. These figures can also be produced artificially, and they have some interesting applications in woodworking.
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Charles at Conestoga Works has created an all-in-one system for using high voltage electricity to burn Lichtenberg figures in wood. While this is safer than some of the home-built systems out there, it is still capable of transmitting 12,000V of electricity, so please, PLEASE read the instructions before using it
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When burning Lichtenberg figures, bring your piece to its final shape, but don’t apply finish. Sand the piece up to roughly 400 grit — heavy sanding after burning will remove some of the intricate detail and ruin the effect. Once you’ve finished burning, you can clean off some of the soot created, sand to your final smoothness, and apply finish.
Electricity needs a conductor, and wood is a terrible conductor — unless it is wet. Create a solution of 2 tablespoons of baking soda in 1 quart of water (scale up as necessary) and use it to saturate the wood. When you’re ready to burn, brush on a bit more solution. If the wood is too dry, it won’t burn. If it’s too wet, it won’t burn either. There’s a bit of a learning curve involved.
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With the workpiece on a wood table (and preferably an insulating rubber or plastic mat), place both probes firmly down on the workpiece and depress the foot pedal. Hold the probes in place and patterns will begin to form around each electrode and begin to move towards one another. Once they meet, you can continue to hold down the foot pedal to create a deeper groove. When finished, let go of the foot pedal, THEN remove the probes. If the probes aren’t in contact with the workpiece while the system is energized, you run the risk of creating an arc.
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The patterns created have a natural, fractal quality to them. You can burn a little bit to create rosette type figures, or burn long lines across your workpiece. It’s completely up to you. Just remember to be safe and have fun!
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